film notes: Giant Little Ones

I loved this artful post-gay high-school film from Canada, starring a wonderful Josh Wiggins as questioning Franky and Kyle MacLachlan as his newly gay dad.

Last updated on June 15th, 2022 at 03:19 pm

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Google Summary, with a comment from me:

Franky Winter and Ballas Kohl have been best friends since childhood. They are high school royalty: handsome, stars of the swim team, and popular with girls. They live a perfect teenage life – until the night of Franky’s epic 17th birthday party when Franky and Ballas are involved in an unexpected incident [an under-the-covers blowjob and probably some diddling] that changes their lives forever.

Giant Little Ones poster

When I enjoy a more or less conventional movie as much as I’ve enjoyed Keith Behrman‘s Giant Little Ones, I watch it again to make sure I’m right, not just because I want to double the pleasure or repeat a great experience.

No, I watch it again because I’m suspicious.

I’m not used to liking anything so much that’s digested so easily. Movies aren’t food to me. In some ways they’re what going to church is like for religious people. (That also must be why when the sermon is bad or boring or offensive, I walk out.) So I wonder if I’m ignoring my buttons getting pushed and therefore not thinking critically. As a writer about movies I tend to be cautious.

Have I been duped? Am I a sap for liking this?

Some other films I’ve felt this way about have been: Attack the Block, Lifeguard, Pump Up the Volume, and The Philosophers, also known deceptively after its theatrical run, if it even had one, as After the Dark. The latter is considerably less conventional than the rest and more or less an art film albeit a seemingly universally misunderstood one.

They are all good art, as far as I’m concerned. But also they are by and large sarcasm- and condescension-free, which is a relief and these days, acts of resistance.

What’s an Art Film?

I’ve always liked Jim Emerson’s definition: An art film teaches you how to watch it. Whereas we already know how to watch a genre or conventional film — what to pay attention to and how — an art film provides fewer familiar handholds.

I now consider all those films among my favorites without second thoughts. Attack the Block is a pop masterpiece.

Giant Little Ones‘ form follows high-school coming-out drama closely, with a few important and purposeful squiggles outside the lines. But it’s within that form and the expert execution of its conventions that the film surpasses any other similar genre picture I can think of, outside of Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade, which manages to render mute all other teen high-school dramas as adult propaganda. GLO is a much better film than Love Simon, for instance, the solipsism of that film’s character perfectly reflected in the pandering plot moves.

The mechanistic and awkward (and inoffensively manipulative) third act of Love Simon contrasts with the continuing small surprises throughout Giant Little Ones. The films foil any rote expectations of pat conclusions or resolutions: a non-binary approach if I’ve ever seen one. A line from Kyle Maclachlan’s Ray Winter, the gay dad addressing his son, the questioning lead character Franky, encapsulates one of the film’s central ideas effortlessly:

“I suggest you just pay attention to who you’re drawn to and not worry about what to call it at this point.”

Maclachlan delivers this line, which reads drily on the page, with a subtle warmth and compassion. This conversation occurs near the end of the film, where genre expectations require reconciliations. But it’s the details that brought us here and the content of the father/son conversation itself that distinguishes GLO’s trajectory.

Franky ends up alone in a shot you can see as the featured image of this post. He looks content, almost joyful, rather than self-satisfied.

Like a stoic, his reconciliations are with himself and only incidentally with the people around him. He hasn’t cleared all his obstacles away — his best friend Ballas who drunkenly sucked his dick that night and then betrayed him still won’t talk to him — but he’s answered his obligations to himself and his own values by returning the bike he’d stolen from Ballas along with a dogtag necklace.

Like many of the props in the film, the necklace doesn’t clearly represent any one thing although it’s suggestive. How any single viewer might see it depends on the angle you’re looking at it.

Ballas loses the necklace early in the film in the room where Franky and Ballas had their sexual encounter. Franky’s mom finds it eventually and hands it over to him. By this time he and Ballas are estranged, Ballas having misrepresented what happened between them to his girlfriend and to the school at large eventually; so Franky withholds from Ballas until the moment shown in the still above. He’s left it hanging on the handlebars of Ballas’ bike which he’s also been withholding for much of the film, as revenge for Ballas’ trashing Franky’s bike.

So what’s he returning with these objects? What’s he saying? Is he saying he’ll love Ballas forever?

Maybe that’s one of the things he’s saying. Since the necklace was originally given to Ballas by his girlfriend, maybe Franky is reminding Ballas of his own obligations or maybe what he stands to lose. Maybe the dogtag’s inscription is a question, or a challenge.

There are a few other exchanges of objects, bodies, and experiences throughout the film, and they ask for, presage, or initiate connections and transitions, changes in state; and the film is full of them. The bike and necklace exchange is just one. Perhaps they represent cherished objects left behind or transformed when one grows up.

The hilarious scenes between Franky and his friend Mouse present two versions of a concealed phallus. In one scene, Franky questions Mouse about her bulge. In a later scene, after asking Franky to evaluate her strap-on, she enjoins him to share his bulge and penis with her, as a kind of hands-on demonstration of a male-sexed body, and a tiny lesson in the blind nature of physical responses.

She also takes the opportunity to evaluate it:

  • It looks smaller than I expected,.
  • OK, Franky, I need to touch your thing.

Young actor Josh Wiggins is especially good in this scene, as his character tries hard to be supportive of his friend Mouse, to go above and beyond really. His performance throughout the film, here and in the scenes with Franky’s dad, is so attentive, detailed, and authentic, I will be surprised if I see a more impressive turn this year.

These exchanges and encounters with objects facilitate the grace and elegance of the film’s narrative structure — mapped out, it would look like a series of looping paths connected by bridges. In that scene, it’s a phallus: a sock-cock in one scene, a strap-on in another. It’s not hard to imagine that Mouse is taking the piss here out of Franky, who’s declared, I’m not gay! at least three times, and yet in that open conversation with his dad it’s clear he’s not quite sure about that.

Ballas gives Franky a flare gun for his birthday. They shoot it off while biking around the neighborhood drunk. Later, early in the morning, under the covers, something else goes off.

In the film’s final scene, Franky shoots the flare gun by himself, although two important people in his life see it, both Ballas and Ballas’ sister Natasha, whom Franky is now involved with.

  • Ballas in the pool - Still from Giant Little Ones

Ballas’ response as he treads water in a pool, comes soon after discovering the return of his bike and necklace.

He’s as ambivalent and troubled as he was in the school’s hallway when Franky confronts him, giving him the opportunity to come clean, to do, say, something, anything.

This interaction occurs after the disturbing, penultimate scene in which a drunken Ballas kicks the shit out of Franky.

This scene takes places in the parking lot of the convenient store. It echoes an earlier scene which also turned violent and also featured homophobic language and behavior.

In the earlier scene, a group of drunk assholes in a car ridicule Ballas and Franky. They call them “boyfriends.” The confrontation becomes a bonding moment for the boys as they resist the bullying behavior of the assholes. The boys douse the dudes with their Slurpees.

Ballas punches two of them and slams a car door on another. Then the boys get on bikes and escape. Later, they’re under the covers together, softly gasping, almost as if this confrontation had planted a suggestion in their minds.

Two important questions precede the violence between Ballas and Franky, both asked by Franky:

  • “What the fuck is wrong with you? What are you so afraid of?”
  • The first punch thrown.
  • “Ballas…what are you doing?”
  • Ballas has no answer, just another punch.

Franky’s hoarse and anguished question broke my heart. He’s appalled at Ballas’ behavior, at the cruel inversion of their love for another, which is still there in that question and in Ballas’ over-the-top but not uncharacteristic violence.

I appreciated that in the next scene Ballas gets interviewed by the cops, with non-diegetic sound and droning music. Eventually, his sister Natasha pauses at the doorway into the room and watches. So many American movies treat violence between friends as no big deal. Giant Little Ones shows us legal, moral, and emotional consequences, emphasizing the latter. Natasha’s expressions are unreadable but they aren’t obviously judgmental regardless.

Shortly after the scene with the cops, another transformation and transition occurs. Franky stands in front of mirror, evaluating himself, and it’s not just his appearance. The fight and its physical and psychic impact motivates this assessment. He decides to change his look but the way the scene is lit and shot makes it feel like a spiritual transition in the form of a material ritual.

This is the film at its most expressive and intimate, as facilitated by cinematographer Guy Godfree. Again, an ambient soundtrack accompanies this scene rather than diegetic sound. Imagine how the buzz of hair clippers would affect the way we receive and perceive what we’re shown.

Notice also how, despite the cramped location, there’s a foreground, middleground and background to these shots. The focus shifts to draw our attention but the size or shape of out-of-focus objects or parts of Franky’s body draws the eye back and forth across the frame. For instance, in the close-up profile of Franky shaving, we’re offered as loci: an ear, the curl of several strands of hair, a highlighted shoulder, the shadowed curve of an arm, an eye slit, the outline of a nose.

Then a clump of hair falls just a bit in front of that nose but the focus remains fixed on Franky’s face. Godfree has composed these shots exquisitely and in a subtle balance of forms and shades, with far more curves and circles. Most of the film’s other shots are full of squared-off blocks of blue-toned light and darker blue shadows, as you can see in most of the stills above.

In these shots, the tones are still dominantly blue but differentiated by the subtle Caucasian pinkish beige of Franky’s skin and the muddy whites of the walls.

Now that I’ve watched the film a fourth time, I’ve had the opportunity to appreciate, not just the film’s formal patterns in the narrative but also its style. This is an art film, after all.

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Christopher B.P. Mahoney
Christopher B.P. Mahoney
April 16, 2020 2:42 PM

I can’t remember reading a better piece of film writing. About a film I love, no less.

Christopher B.P. Mahoney
Christopher B.P. Mahoney
Reply to  The Cinesexual
April 16, 2020 6:30 PM

Completely my pleasure! I feel lucky to have found your site.

What are your thoughts?x

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